- Associated Press - Sunday, December 6, 2015

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - Fighter pilot Bob Inghram didn’t know how low he could go after being shot down off the coast of France in a friendly-fire mishap, but the day would come when he slipped 25 feet underground at a German prisoner-of-war camp and helped dig a dark tunnel.

A POW in Stalag Luft III, he was on the ground floor of a breakout that would become famous in the movie “The Great Escape.”

But Inghram, now 95 and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, never panicked while crawling through the 23-inch square tunnel, as did Flight Lt. Danny Velinski, the “Tunnel King” played by actor Charles Bronson in the movie.

In real life, there was a moment of alarm. It was Inghram’s first day on the job and his heart jumped after someone sealed the top of the tunnel with a slab of cement, leaving him in darkness until a colleague lit a candle fueled by margarine.

“You can’t get scared when you have no exit. As I say, the first time I went down I was a little concerned, and then I remember a fellow down below me, and that SOB is in the same position I am and he isn’t screaming or hollering,” Inghram recalled in an interview with the San Antonio Express-News (https://bit.ly/1NrsCfj).

“You can’t escape. You’re locked into the damned tunnel because they’ve put a slab of cement in front of you, and all of the other people are locked into the tunnel with you. You have no means of getting the hell out of there. They have to let you out.”

Inghram and Russ Reed, 91, a retired Air Force Reserve lieutenant colonel, are among a handful of San Antonio-area veterans who were in the prison camp, where allied officers were housed. Both live at Blue Skies West, a retirement center once known as Air Force Village II, along with another Stalag Luft III alumnus, Bob Metcalf, who declined to be interviewed.

Another local veteran who lives across town, Wallace Kirkpatrick, dumped dirt from his trousers and stole electrical wire to help light the tunnels.

None of them participated in the legendary breakout depicted in 1963’s “The Great Escape,” which starred Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough. Reed arrived at the camp long after the escape, in which 76 prisoners briefly made their way to freedom - at a horrific price. The Germans executed 50 of them. Only three got back to friendly lines.

The complex at Sagan, Poland, would grow to five camps containing about 10,000 allied troops. Freedom was never far from their minds, but looking back on it, Inghram can see how scary the work was for those who constructed the three tunnels, nicknamed Tom, Dick and Harry.

As many as eight diggers worked underground, breathing air pumped through powered milk cans that had vents. Small cans that once contained cheese were filled with margarine and cloth wicks for use as candles.

As the work progressed, carts were installed that allowed prisoners to roll forward and backward. The digger at the face of the tunnel slowly chipped away at the sandy earth, hoping to avoid sudden collapses. Thousands of wooden boards, many removed from the prisoners’ beds, were used to reinforce the tunnel walls.

“Before we had the carts, we had to crawl up to the face of the tunnel, and the first 100 feet you crawled up, and we’d go 100 feet and then we’d put in what we called a halfway house,” Inghram recalled. “Two people could sit in there and you could turn around.”

Inghram and Reed were shot down on their fifth missions. At 20, Reed commanded a B-17 Flying Fortress, while Inghram flew the British-made Spitfire Mk Vbs in an American unit, the 31st Fighter Group, which the Air Force said was the first to go into combat in Europe, starting in the summer of 1942.

The men were taken to Dulag Luft, the Luftwaffe Aircrew Interrogation Center near Frankfurt, where both believe they were questioned by the same man, a graying, pleasant Luftwaffe captain who had been a car salesman in Miami before the war. Reed and Inghram found the conversations revealing. Staring out a window in one session, Reed and the captain saw an American bomber group high in the sky.

“And the interrogator said after I was looking at it for a while, just sitting there, ‘You know, no matter how many of you we shoot down, the next day there are more of you up there,’” Reed said. “And at that particular point, I realized the Germans were aware of their situation.” It was November 1944.

Providing cover for a Canadian unit landing on the French coast April 19, 1942, a disastrous assault known as the Dieppe Raid, Inghram bailed after a British cruiser fired on him. He didn’t know how to swim, but rose to the surface after inflating his life jacket.

He floated in a dinghy for 40 hours without food or water until a German officer saved him from being shot by his captors, then joked, “Now you have German life insurance.”

Inghram, then 22, joined men from his unit who had become some of the first American POW in Europe. Taken to Stalag Luft III, he ran into one pilot everyone thought had been killed, Lt. Col. A.P. Clark, the fighter group’s executive officer. Inghram also saw a buddy, 1st Lt. Ed Tovrea, who was friends with Canadian Wally Floody. Inghram and historians at a website detailing the prison camp, www.b24.net, credit Floody as the mastermind behind the tunnel network.

Clark, a 31st Fighter Group pilot who the Air Force said was captured after a crash landing, helped procure equipment used in the escape that included maps and compasses. He also obtained cameras to document a covert history of the camp.

Tovrea approached Inghram about joining a group of tunnel diggers as part of a future escape. Documents say the goal was to spirit 200 POWs out of the camp - the movie said it was 250.

“I said sure, fine, you betcha,” recalled Inghram, and before long he was digging in all three tunnels. He worked from 8 a.m. until noon or so, from the spring of 1943 well into the next year.

At night, he and Tovrea talked of making their way down the Danube River in a small boat. That’s just what Bronson’s character and another prisoner did in the movie, rowing toward the Baltic, but all the officers in U.S. units were moved out before the breakout March 24-25, 1944.

Most of the escapees were captured in or near Sagan, which is now Zagan, according to the website. The site lists the 50 executed prisoners with their photos.

These days, Inghram and Reed chuckle at the movie’s dramatization, including a scene where McQueen’s character, Capt. Virgil Hilts, the “Cooler King,” jumps a motorcycle over rings of razor wire in a desperate bid for Switzerland.

“It was a Hollywood production, and they didn’t make it to lose money,” Inghram said, laughing. “There’s no such thing as Steve McQueen riding a damned motorcycle or a guy flying the airplane, James Garner. There was nobody flying an airplane. . Hell, there was no damned Cooler King.”

Inghram likes to think that he and Tovrea would have made it, and he hasn’t forgotten of how he dreamed of rowing downriver with his friend. Some days 72 years later, he’s still amazed at the part he played.

“Every once in a while I remember,” he said. “And I say, ‘What in the hell was I doing down there?’”

___

Information from: San Antonio Express-News, https://www.mysanantonio.com

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